Belgium's golden generation being held back by their own manager Marc Wilmots
Belgium have some of the best players at Euro 2016, writes Miguel Delaney, so why aren't the performing like it?
A few weeks ago, Jan Vertonghen was in one of Tottenham Hotspur’s training-ground meeting rooms and enthusing about his supreme centre-half partnership with compatriot Toby Alderweireld - but also explaining how it’s unlikely to make any difference to Belgian manager Marc Wilmots at Euro 2016.
“I don’t expect him to try us together, no,” Vertonghen said with stark matter-of-factness. “I think we’ll start the campaign as full-backs and you never know where you’re going to end up but hopefully we stay full-backs, because otherwise that will mean more injuries.”
In other words, it’s going to take a crisis for Wilmots to try two of the Premier League and Belgium’s better players in their best positions. It is actually remarkable. Wilmots has ready-prepared understanding in a key area, of the sort that would greatly improve any team and so many managers would crave, but refuses to use it.
Tottenham's Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen look dejected after West Brom's first goalReuters
It sums up the big issue with this Belgian team, before even getting as far as their real stars. As you look down that eye-opening squad list, after all, it’s very difficult not to be impressed at the sheer variety of brilliance; it’s almost impossible not to think they could win it.
The problem, though, is that Wilmots evidently doesn’t look at it in the same way. In his time as manager, Belgium have been a team who are less than the sum of their sensational individual parts. It is a greater obstacle to their chance at glory than any opposition side - unless Wilmots is building to something no-one else sees, or is willing to change.
The only thing building right now is the fear that the wrong manager could waste a golden generation. Belgium are just so frustratingly flat in a way they shouldn't be. They just don’t spark or flow in the way a team of such fine ability should, and there are head-scratching decisions right through the team. Nothing emphasises any of this more than the fact that the player with the most international goals in this squad is not Eden Hazard or Kevin De Bruyne or any of the other brilliant attackers, but Marouane Fellaini, with 15.
Despite all the quality in the Belgium side, he is the player that Wilmots has described as “unique”. Whatever that means in the context of Fellaini, resorting to the Manchester United man is often the manager’s only tactical solution if games aren’t going their way. Fellaini may not start, but he will usually be brought on so the team can avail of his physical force, as was the case in the 2-1 World Cup win over Algeria.
Belgium are usually in that kind of frustrating situation, though, because they’re not maximising superior players. Hazard and De Bruyne are two of the most entertaining and effective free-wheeling attackers in the game when on form but, under Wilmots, it is like they are on rigid tram lines.
Behind them, Mousa Dembele can’t get in the team ahead of Axel Witsel despite his evolution into one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, but that’s still not as surprising as the decision with his Spurs team-mates Vertonghen and Alderweireld. Wilmots will use 20-year-old Jason Denayer - on loan at Galatasaray from Manchester City - and Zenit St Petersburg’s Nic Lombaerts in such a crucial area, rather than one of the best partnerships in Europe.
It just comes across as the manager almost second-guessing himself, or seeing a vision that has not been apparent on the pitch yet. Wilmots uses Alderweireld and Vertongthen in the full-back positions because of how their styles theoretically give the team a greater cohesion. If that cohesion is evidently not there in reality, though, what is the cost of restoring them to their best places? It’s such an oddly confounding issue; something that seems so obvious but evidently isn’t to the manager.
To give him his due, however, Wilmots has undeniably built cohesion in another way. Virtually every player feels the manager creates a great spirit and atmosphere around the squad, and that can be as important to a tournament as deeper tactical integration. Even if they were underwhelming in Brazil, too, the feeling was that the mere experience of that first tournament together will foster an evolution in this campaign.
Thibaut Courtois has certainly bought into his manager’s approach in that regard, hinting at this deeper unity. “We might have the most quality of the teams in our group but in football it's not always quality that wins games,” he said. “It's about team spirit and fighting for each other and doing your tactical work well.”
Courtois came out with that quote this week but it’s almost interchangeable with a line from Wilmots a few months ago: “Everybody wants to play beautiful football but that can't be at the expense of discipline and efficiency, because that’s how you get results.”
Wilmots has raised results to a certain level and the kind of qualities cited by Courtois and his coach could yet lift them to a higher one. Belgium will certainly be hard to beat. It’s just that they should find winning so much easier.